Xiu Xiu: Offend In Every Way

An infant screams. The child’s blood-curdling screech pierces the outside of my headphones, and everything falls into place.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop and taking my first listen to the soon-to-be-released fourth full-length album from cathartic rockers Xiu Xiu. In my hand is a copy of Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart’s answers to a list of questions I posed to him via e-mail several weeks ago. I’m trying my best to make sense of the new album, La Foret, and Stewart’s responses, and the screaming child has just illuminated what I’ve been missing.

The child feels unhappiness, and it howls. Stewart feels unhappiness, and he howls. Neither one cares what others will think of the noise. It’s pure, uninhibited human expression, something that fills every second of Stewart’s music. But despite it’s unquestionably human qualities, Xiu Xiu is not music for everybody.

“It is pointless and impossible to try and make people like you by being appealing,” Stewart says of his musical style, which bathes in the jarringly candid and occasionally tugs at that giant blinking lever labeled “Taboo.”

It feels odd that I’ve connected with the man through e-mail, the only form of communication easily available to him while Xiu Xiu treks through a European tour. Here I am, trying to dissect the mind of an artist whose emotional regurgitation makes most emo acts look like plush novelty dolls, and I’m sifting through spelling errors on a printed e-mail. There’s no human voice, no physical presence. It’s nothing but words on a page and a baby screaming.

But Stewart offers some context. He’s writing from Torino, Italy, in an Internet shop that caters to Romanian and Albanian migrants. In the past weeks he has traveled from Austria to Hungary to Serbia to Slovenia to Italy; he ate a blood orange for breakfast and has plans to head into the studio later in the day to record under the name XXL in collaboration with an Italian band called Larsen. First he’s headed to a cathedral to see its collection of guillotines.

It’s the kind of day that could lead Stewart to write a song, even if the events are miles away from Xiu Xiu’s typical sorrow and sadness. With potentially offensive but agonizingly honest lyrics creeping through La Foret, songs about eating the president and personal sexual disgust are never off limits. Stewart’s singing voice alone jumps from a near-death warble to a shriek shot straight from the adrenal gland.

“It is not so much that we want to make sad music but that we want to make music about the intense points of our real lives,” Stewart says. “My life has been really hard and really awful in the past two years, and lives around me have, as well. It’s is not so much a catharsis. I don’t feel cleansed after playing or anything like that, but it is a way to clarify and examine what have been and are overwhelming feelings and events.”

As a follow up to Xiu Xiu’s most-accessible Fabulous Muscles, La Foret sees the band taking a different approach to songwriting. Due to a hectic tour schedule, the band hasn’t been able to keep with its steady recording habits. Xiu Xiu worked on the new songs for about two months in early 2004 and wasn’t able to revisit them until December, when the album’s deadline was fast approaching. The process forced the band to be more spontaneous.

La Foret, which means “the drill” in French, continues cautiously on the pop-influenced trail of Fabulous Muscles, but veers onto the experimental and orchestral tangents that characterized Xiu Xiu’s first two albums. Using sound dynamics to its advantage, La Foret will linger on a single acoustic guitar strum or let a wall of clattering percussion pummel down like rainfall. Light “do-do-do-do” harmonies are complemented with a blast of electronic distortion. Familiar sounds are auctioned off for eerie clacks and clangs. Even with its infatuation with dissonance, the album presents a sound that is unmistakably human, like the sound of (bingo!) a wailing child.

As the mother carries the screaming infant out of the coffee shop, I realize the impact of my inability to follow up on Stewart’s responses. I’ll never know what he meant when he wrote about the pain of the past few years. But then again, these holes connect me to the music. They force me to interpret it, to embrace my shocked-and-appalled self or to brand Xiu Xiu a disgusting menace. The choice is, after all, exactly what Stewart wants.

“It is not up to us to decide what people get, if anything, from [our music],” Stewart says. “Music that has meant the most to us has been music that has been as open as possible, and we want to try to maintain that circle.”

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